My conscious life started with war,” deadpans renowned poet and translator Charles Simic, recounting formative experiences during the Nazi occupation of his native Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). An early memory involves being thrown from bed, hearing glass shatter, and seeing bright flames as a bomb hit and destroyed a building across the street from his home. Just as his poetic voice seems to parody his ironic mind, Simic’s distinctive Eastern European inflections bob cheerfully through the incident’s ashes like snatches in a game of jacks. “But war is not so bad for a kid. The parents are off looking for food or are dead. There’s no school, no parental supervision. As a kid, I was running around; it was fun. But I saw some things that were awful, too. Great poverty. Nobody had anything to eat.” Trademark Simic, this disquieting duality figures in “The Big War” (The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990): “We played war during the war, / Margaret.” Reinforcement arrives with clay toy soldiers (“The lead ones melted into bullets”), ultimately broken or dismembered.
After the war came Communism and political oppression under Stalin. When Simic was still a boy, his father emigrated to the United States. But before Charles and his mother could join him, eight years later, they became “displaced persons” in Paris, awaiting American visas. The details of Simic’s recollected youth have shaped much of his “output in life,” spanning a half century and more than 30 volumes of poetry, 20 more of translation, and nearly a dozen of nonfiction. Along with war, he frequently writes about religion and mortality, fit subjects for pondering the presence of absence. Many critics agree that the author’s unique, surreal evocations of the physical and spiritual poverty of modern life coalesce in a singular, inimitable brand. Numerous honors attesting to that fact include his 1990 Pulitzer Prize (for The World Doesn’t End) and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
The Serbian transplant writes in his adopted language, despite having arrived in Illinois at age 16 with only a tenuous grasp. “I always wrote in English because I knew I would show my poems to Americans—to a beautiful girl. It wasn’t a big decision,” ho-hums Simic, who wears his reputation lightly. Enrolled at Oak Park High School, he composed “My Brother in the Garden,” a first effort that has since been lost. After graduation, he worked as a proofreader at the Chicago Sun-Times and took night classes at University of Chicago. By age 20, Simic had published two poems in the Chicago Review. Drafted into the army in 1961, he served for two years, in both Germany and France. Settling in Manhattan upon his return in 1963, the fledging poet married fashion designer Helen Dubin, obtained a BA in English from New York University, and did a three-year stint as an editorial assistant at the photography magazine Aperture.
Though he was writing and publishing poems, Simic wanted to become a visual artist. “Long before I wanted to be a poet I wanted to be a painter. As a result, I didn’t take poetry very seriously,” he admits. During his 20s, he studied art history and Dada. Along the way, he released his first poetry volume, What the Grass Says, at 29. Though he stopped painting a year later, he has remained a lifelong devotee of the visual arts. He once even abandoned his writing career to pursue his talent for assemblage, a found-objects movement developed by surrealist Joseph Cornell, the subject of Simic’s biography Dime-Store Alchemy (1992). Extrapolating from Cornell’s technique, Simic introduced improbable, collage-like juxtapositions in his now signature everyday-object poems found in Dismantling the Silence (1971) and Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (1974), including “Fork,” “Spoon,” “Brooms,” “Watermelon,” “The Pillow,” and “Watch Repair.” Illuminating his method, Simic explains, “A poem is like a little box. Something pops into your head. You look across the room and see something else interesting. The poem is a place where one assembles all kinds of aspects of reality. You can’t just work in a linear fashion. You have to be open to chance, to something unexpected popping in. That’s what I like about Cornell; he was always open to accident.”
Simic’s work as a translator likewise has influenced his original writing. As he recounts, American poets of the 1950s and 1960s were looking to other countries for inspiration. “Anyone with any knowledge of a foreign language was trying translation. It was almost a competition to find ‘new’ poetry.” He discovered Vasko Popa at the New York Public Library. Characterizing his translating of this fellow Yugoslav and a range of other poets as the “closest possible experience of a poem,” Simic claims to have “learned more about poetry from the practice than anything else.” Today a widely translated author himself, his descriptions of Popa’s work likely apply to his own: “It’s very simple, very precise, very concentrated. It’s difficult to translate because there’s no room to stumble.” Meanwhile, the translator’s recently reissued landmark Another Republic (1976), co-edited with Mark Strand, has since successfully introduced scores of English-speaking audiences to South American and European poets.